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Ibrahim looked at me through the rearview mirror. We both expected a burst of gunfire to riddle the beat-up Suburban at any second, but it never came. Instead there was a moment of eerie silence as our SUV careened down the dirt road… trying to put as much distance between us and the school as possible. Our army convoy had left us to fend for ourselves; the protection of their turret-mounted machine guns was nowhere in sight.
How many were dead? We had no idea, but seconds before the explosion, the street had been filled with children. Now there was only chaos and rage. We were completely unable to defend ourselves, two SUVs carrying a half dozen frightened journalists and our British security adviser, Rupert.
Young Iraqi men lined the road, some running toward the still smoking aftermath of the blast, some watching us race away in stunned silence, others shouting and raising their fists in anger.
Rupert rode shotgun. His pistol would be worthless in the expected ambush. It never left his holster.
“They bombed the bloody school,” Rupert shouted into a handheld radio. “Repeat! They bombed the school!”
There was no answer.
“Don’t slow down,” I told Ibrahim, “no matter what.”
The Iraqi driver floored the accelerator.
The Suburban bounced and bucked as our makeshift convoy roared down the dirt road past the squatty concrete homes that dotted the landscape of western Baghdad. The residents knew enough to stay inside; the roads were empty save for a few stray dogs and goats.
Somewhere ahead was a left turn that would lead us to a busy road. The risk of ambush would be smaller if we could just make that road, but our chances of getting there seemed remote. We managed to put half a mile between the school and us, but none of us could relax. Not yet.
In recent weeks, insurgents had modified their tactics. No longer content with simply bombing foreigners, they had begun ambushing survivors with AK-47s as they tried to run. And we were running for our lives. Our unarmored vehicles would be no match for bullets, much less another bomb.
I turned and looked out the back window. The school was receding into the distance, the crowd outside still visible even through the dust cloud left hanging in the air by our racing convoy.
For the first time in the last—what had it been, three minutes?—I caught my breath, the adrenaline replaced by a sudden wave of nausea. I recognized the feeling from the last time I was almost killed; it would pass. That’s when I noticed Ibrahim, looking at me in the rearview mirror. He was telling me something with his eyes.
I suddenly became acutely aware of Rafraf. She was sitting on my right, closest to the door. But she wasn’t sitting as much as lying down half across my body. She seemed tiny and frail, even wrapped in what was supposed to be my body armor. I could feel her body rise and fall with each breath. I could feel her tears on my arm.
And there was Ibrahim again, looking at me in the rearview mirror.
Rafraf was twenty-three years old. She should have been in school, but Baghdad University had been closed for more than a year. So instead of enjoying her last semester as a college student, Rafraf was putting her English skills to work doing the most dangerous job in the most dangerous city on earth. She was working as a translator for NBC News, which currently meant trying to survive the ride back to our hotel.
“What about all the children?” she asked, her voice barely above a whimper. “There were children everywhere. Don’t they care?”
“Maybe the children knew in advance,” I said. “Maybe they had warning. I didn’t see any bodies.” It was the most I could offer, but I wasn’t convinced.
Rafraf sobbed, “There were so many children.” I felt her body shudder.
I squeezed her hand, and for the first time realized I was holding her hand, my right arm draped around her for protection. I loosened my grip to allow her to sit up, but she didn’t move. I became aware of the scarf that covered her head and most of her face, aware, in fact, of all that meant.
Rafraf was a Muslim woman in a culture that demanded separation between men and women. In the weeks I had worked with Rafraf I had never actually touched her… not even a handshake. Now here I was with my arm wrapped around her body.
Ibrahim spoke little English, but in this case he didn’t have to. He had been sending me a message with his eyes… perhaps a warning: RAFRAF IS ONE OF US, NOT ONE OF YOU. DON’T TOUCH OUR WOMEN.
I gently nudged Rafraf back to her upright position and let her go.
“It’ll be okay,” I said weakly. But I knew it wouldn’t. I also knew deep down this wouldn’t be the last time I tried to save Rafraf.
© 2010 Don Teague